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What are some ways music has a function?

Functional music, or music that is created with a specific purpose in mind, is perhaps as old as music itself. It’s important for us to make a distinction here between functional music (also described as utility music), which is music written for a specific purpose, and functional harmony, which is a system of harmonic structure.

In many traditional cultures music serves a critical role in religious ceremonies. Let’s explore some traditional functions of music and some cultures that exemplify these functions.

  • Social Music – music written for social purposes such as dancing, group singing, and story telling. Some examples of social music include pub songs (notably Irish pub songs), drum circles, and dance music.
  • Religious Music – music written or performed specifically in the context of a religious ceremony. Some examples include hymns, the Sun Dance of the Arapaho people, and much of the traditional Indian music.
  • Patriotic Music – music written or performed to promote a sense of unity in a group of people. Examples include national anthems, songs that tell the histories of a culture (notably in the music of Indigenous Americans), and the music of the Appalachian Mountains.
  • Entertainment Music – music written or performed solely for entertainment value. This is exemplified by American popular music and film music. It is, by and large, the most common function of music in today’s world.

If you’re wondering whether there’s some overlap between these types of functional music then you’d be absolutely correct. It’s normal for music to serve multiple purposes and, as such, have multiple functions.